NBA

Kevin Durant is the Warriors’ biggest problem, and their only solution

Forever stuck in his feelings, Kevin Durant delivered a 50-point masterpiece Friday night as the Golden State Warriors eliminated the L.A. Clippers from the postseason and stepped over what had at times looked like an unlikely threat to the Warriors’ dynasty. The Clippers took them to six games and the Warriors seemed shell-shocked, even insulted, that the Clippers didn’t roll over and die.

Durant’s impending free agency muddied the entire Warriors season and has spilled into the playoffs. The question over Durant’s future is an inevitable distraction and instead of dousing the flames, Durant spent the better part of the last few months fanning them, then complaining when others said they smelled smoke. Durant, no one else, rightly or wrongly, created this distraction. While those around the team can confidently say it has at times affected the way the Warriors have played, it’s also true that Durant is the only one who can elevate the team above his own circus.

Durant’s barn-burner in Game 6 was a great example of this. Previously in the series, the Warriors blew a 31-point lead in Game 2 and then tripped over themselves in Game 5. A second trip to Los Angeles was never supposed to happen, but it did, and it seemed Durant had had enough. He scored 38 in the first half, coming out with a welcome but quite-frankly-rare urgency. If doubts were creeping in, the Slim Reaper vanquished them one jump shot at a time.

“I just keep on humming no matter what,” Durant said after Game 6. “I just play my game through it all.”

There are echoes of greatness here. Create the noise and hum through it — right out of the LeBron James handbook. For years, LeBron’s very presence fostered distraction. Questions would swarm his team, then the playoffs would come around and Peak LeBron would engage.

Last season, in LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers’ finale, questions about his future and ability to lead a flawed roster out of the East pestered the team. In the playoffs, LeBron averaged 34 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9 assists to lead the Cavs to the Finals. It was maybe his best postseason performance of his career, and for a few weeks, everyone turned their attention to appreciate it and worry less about his future. LeBron, of course, joined the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer.

Durant and LeBron don’t mean to be distractions. It comes with their celebrity, but they have a tendency to highlight and exaggerate those distractions: LeBron with his sub-Tweeting. Durant with his bristly insistence. Teammates may wilt, but Durant and LeBron don’t. They hardly ever even have bad games and, in the off chance they do, it’s a prerequisite to them annihilating anything and everything around them — opponents, narratives, et al. Whatever distractions or questions they brought with them, they seem to inevitably crush under a hefty sum of points, rebounds, assists, wins and rings.

Maybe Durant could have done a better job fending off the distraction. (After all, Kawhi Leonard finds himself in the same spot and the most polarizing thing about him is the fact that he wears dad shoes and laughs like the lizard king trying to fit in with humans.) But maybe he can’t help it. He’s the greatest 7-foot scorer in the history of the universe. That probably leads to a different approach to life, the media, what constitutes good TV programming (hey, KD, hate to tell you, but no one watches “The Boardroom”) and what qualifies as distracting.

Durant’s Warriors tenure has been in many ways the opposite of his time with the Thunder. In Oklahoma City, Durant’s bread and butter was unbelievable regular seasons punctuated by postseason disappointments. Since joining Golden State, Durant has added two NBA Finals MVPs and two rings to his resume. His regular seasons have been anything but memorable, and all of that is washed away when he goes bananas every year in the playoffs.

After the first round, Durant is averaging 35 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Durant wasn’t part of the MVP conversation this season (despite some bodacious numbers) but he’s been the best player in the playoffs.

Next: L.A. Clippers impressed in audition for Kevin Durant

If the Warriors advance past the Houston Rockets in the semifinals, it will be because Durant played like he did in the first round. The Warriors have repeatedly shrunk in the shadow of tension and exhaustion this season, and everything that comes with Durant will be magnified in this conference finals rematch. Durant was brought to Golden State to make them unstoppable. Now he is the Warriors’ biggest problem and the only solution.

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